From Protest to Power: How Spain's Social Movements Are Using Democracy to Bring Change

In little over a week, activist Ada Colau, a woman with no prior political experience, will become the mayor of Spain’s second largest city. A prominent anti-austerity voice in Barcelona, she is the ex-head of the Platform for People Affected by Mortgages, a campaign group that is responsible for stopping more than 1,000 evictions in a country where more than 350,000 unemployed families have been forced out of their homes following the financial crisis. After months of campaigning on an anti-austerity platform, she led a coalition of five small left-wing parties that will govern the Catalan capital. When she is sworn in on 13 June, Barcelona will not only have its first ever female mayor but it will also be the first time a grassroots social movement gains political power in the city.

Grassroots campaigns have been essential for this electoral success for the left in Spain. Take Colau’s support group. The number of families facing evictions sharply rose following the property market crash. The misery each eviction created was - and still is - compounded by the country’s draconian mortgage law: once you’re evicted, you’re obliged to continue to pay part of the loan.  So far, four people across Spain have been driven to the point of taking their own lives over the threat of eviction. Colau’s organisation since the crisis has given legal advice to those under threat; helped organise sit-ins outside properties and inside banks responsible for these harsh conditions. As the election results were called and Barcelona’s incumbent mayor conceded defeat, two photos of Barcelona’s new mayor went viral: both of her being carried away by the police for protesting.

Colau has received much attention both inside and outside Spain for her brave leadership and disobedient methods of protest. Her popularity has been so high that her face was on every campaign poster around the city.  From her work with PAH, the political party “Guanyem” - “Win” - emerged. More a citizen’s platform than an outright political party, it voted on its manifesto in October last year with Colau, one of its many spokespeople. While Podemos is perhaps the best-known anti-austerity party outside of Spain, they were only one of five parties that formed a coalition at the beginning of 2015 - it was one of Guanyem’s spokespeople, not Podemos that became its leader. 

AS THE ELECTION RESULTS WERE CALLED TWO PHOTOS OF BARCELONA’S NEW MAYOR WENT VIRAL: BOTH OF HER BEING CARRIED AWAY BY THE POLICE FOR PROTESTING  A high level of participation in small left-wing parties was a decisive factor in last month’s victory for the left. Barcelona en Comú - which brought Guanyem and others under one umbrella - had its manifesto drawn up by 5,000 people, and although Colau is to be mayor, its leaders, like her, are from activist backgrounds. Her deputy, Gerargo Pisarello is a member of Proces Constituent, a movement looking at constitutionalism as a bottom-up process and Mercedes Vidal, one of 10 of Barcelona en Comú’s councillors, is a former Vice-President of the Neighbourhood Association of Barcelona.

The left also look to have succeeded in gaining political office in Madrid. Ahora Madrid, another coalition of small anti-austerity parties including Podemos look likely to work with the socialist party, PSOE to form a bloc to keep out Esperanza Aguirre of the ruling centre-right Partido Popular. Born out the Indignados movement -  also known as the 15-M movement -  Podemos, under the leadership of Pablo Iglesias has used the anti-austerity grassroots organisations nationwide and already have elected Member of the European Parliament.

The new political parties that will soon have control of the town hall in Barcelona and likely in Madrid are there because these bold figures within the social movements have stepped forward to engage in the politics that means something to voters. By mobilising grassroots campaigns with a message of hope, they have given dissatisfied voters a reason to believe someone will look after their needs.

Pressure groups have learned to work together and mount a challenge to Spain’s two-party systemSocial movements in Spain, as in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, have put these issues on the political agenda. But while occupying public spaces and private businesses has raised the profile of issues such as Spain’s mortgage conditions or the UK’s bedroom tax, Spanish pressure groups have gone one step further. They have learned to work together to channel public outrage and mount a challenge to Spain’s two-party system that isn’t that far from the UK’s. Britain’s pressure groups have much to learn from Spain. Politics has responded to people’s wishes. This mobilisation of civil society to take part in the democratic process beyond protest and civil disobedience now threatens the established order at the national elections due at the end of the year. 

“This victory is thanks to the hard work of thousands of people who’ve shown politics can be done differently,” Colau after the votes were cast on 24 May. Spain’s resistance is moving from the social to the political and those on the left in the UK should take notice.

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